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What’s in a word?

January 15, 2014

So here is one thing that I have been thinking over. “Everlasting,” and “forever” have the same meaning as “eternal,” but they lack an association with an abstract noun, so they are limited in transferring to a philosophical discussion of “eternity.” In Hebrew, the adjective often is the noun itself, in a form bound to another noun. So, no problem, the adjective is a noun. But in English, some adjectives dead end. For example, “beauty” leads to “beautiful” but “handsome” leads only to “handsomeness.” Therefore, it is thought that women possess a quality of “beauty” that men don’t, and men don’t have a comparable quality. They have “other” qualities. But historically, it has been important that men be beautiful. Look at David, in Florence, for example. Look at David in the Bible. He was beautiful, as was Joseph, also Saul, and David’s favourite son, Absolom, who was the most beautiful of all men in Israel.

So, does it matter if we use “eternal” rather than “everlasting” for God? Does it help us extend our thinking? How important is it the word we use is connected to a wider network of words that helps to develop the idea. Does this matter in Bible translation and do translators ever consider this?

6 Comments leave one →
  1. January 15, 2014 4:52 pm

    This reminds me of the discussion around the phrase “isha zona.” Rahab in the book of Joshua was one, but what’s that mean? If Joshua married her, and if she was more an innkeeper or a pub keeper or a food seller (as some rabbis still teach), then the LXX translation has surely led the NT writers astray by referring to her as a mere prostitute. (Today, there’s considerable lore and some confusion around the modern uses of “isha zona,” as discussed here and here and here, for instance.)

    The online complete Jewish Bible follows the later Rashi: “And Joshua the son of Nun sent two men out of Shittim to spy secretly, saying, Go see the land and Jericho. And they went, and came to the house of an innkeeper named Rahab, and they lay there.” (Notice that the same Complete Jewish Bible fails, however, to use The Eternal for Isaiah 26:4 – “Trust in the Lord forever, for in Yah the Lord, is the Rock of eternity.”)

  2. January 15, 2014 5:37 pm

    Considering all the assumptions that we have when coming to a familiar yet foreign text, I find translation filled with many decisions around each word in its hosting phrase. The words eternal and everlasting touch on our assumptions about time, eternity, and cosmos. Other assumptions that these words touch include our sense of the transience of our humanity, what is meant by anointing and election, and the hold of the familiar over us, i.e. recent reception history and dogma.

    I would want to look at this word in its ancient settings with respect to other words that it is used with or that are used in parallel (similar or contrasting). Olam, for instance, sometimes translated for ever, everlasting, and eternal (and there are several combinations of words used with this one) also has the sense of hidden or obscure. It may mean more vaguely, the world to come, or the age we are in, or ages past. It does not necessarily have any assumption of continuity with respect to time passing. As a translation for the Name, I think using a term that olam might have translated fails from a concordance point of view, but more importantly fails grammatically since it is not a name.

    I wonder if John of Patmos has Yhwh in mind when he cites the one who is, who was, and who is to come. Here too we have a sense of corporate memory invoked, exactly what is in the substance of the Name, a present governor, ‘the name by which I will be remembered in all ages’ (Exod 3:15).

    I am not sure this directly addresses your question – hopefully a little helpful.

  3. January 15, 2014 11:53 pm

    This is generally a point of some controversy in the recent English re-translation of the Roman Catholic missal. Where the 1973 ICEL translation used “everlasting”, the new translation uses “eternal”. This has been criticized as a move away from the worldview of the biblical writers, and towards the worldview of the Greek philosophers. As Bob says, these words “touch on our assumptions about time, eternity, and cosmos.”

    My sense of the connotations of these words is consistent with this criticism. “Eternal” to me seems pure, idealized, and remote: eternity and infinity are both clearly defined abstractions that feel essentially mathematical. “Everlasting” to me seems like a narrative word, and has more of the quality of persistence, of things persisting, so it feels like a word that is grounded in reality.

    The missal did not use this phrase, but I’ve come across it in various songs and other texts: I find the phrase “From everlasting to everlasting” to be particularly evocative and appealing.

  4. January 16, 2014 1:09 pm

    So, does it matter…. Does this matter in Bible translation and do translators ever consider this?

    For Torah verses, and in particular for Deuteronomy 33:27 and Exodus 3:15, this gets interesting.

    In Devarim [Deuteronomy] 33:27, it seems that English translators like to use “eternal” and then “everlasting” or “everlasting” and then “eternal” for the respective instances of קֶֽדֶם and עוֹלָֽם.

    Craig’s Inclusive Bible gets at the Hebrew notional play here with this English:

    The God of old
    is your refuge.
    Here below, YHWH is the age-old arm
    driving the enemy before you.

    In Shemot [Exodus] 3:15, translators tend to use either “forever” or “eternal” with עוֹלָֽם.

    “This is my name forever” is what the NIV translators have (following the KJV presumably, which is followed by a whole host of translations including the JPS).

    But the NLT translators have “This is my eternal name.”

    And The Voice has this for the whole verse – This is what you are to tell Israel’s people: “The Eternal, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob is the One who has sent me to you.” This is My name forevermore, and this is the name by which all future generations shall remember Me.

    I most like what Robert Alter does here:

    That is My name forever
    …and thus am I invoked in all ages.

    His brilliant translator’s footnote gives more:

    “The Hebrew of this brief poetic inset preserves strict grammatical-syntactical parallelism with the preceding verset: ‘and that is my appellation in all ages,’ but English synonyms for ‘name’ (Hebrew zekher), such as ‘appellation’ and ‘designation,’ are too ponderously polysyllabic for the little poem.”

  5. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    January 16, 2014 5:38 pm

    I think the biggest difference between eternal and everlasting is that one is Anglo Saxon and the other Latin. But I was thinking of their network of related words. Some words belong to a network of related words, and some don’t, i.e. nervous, nervousness, is not as useful as anxious, anxiety.

  6. January 18, 2014 4:40 pm

    Suzanne, just a note to ask if you have seen the most recent JBL Vol 132, No.4. There is an article there by Julie Faith Parker on Blaming Eve alone, Translation, Omission, and implications of עמה in Gen 3:6b. Kurk would be interested also I think.

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